When we hear the name Begum Rokeya, the image many Bangladeshis have is of an eminent, bespectacled woman wearing a saree. We have heard her name numerous times, seen her face multiple times, and some have even read a bit of her work as part of their education. But how much do we actually know about her?
To some, her biography is familiar. She was born to the family of a well-educated landowner on Dec 9, 1880. Her father was a staunch adherent of the idea that the place of women was in the home. As such, she was not given the education that her elder brother Ibrahim did. However, she had an ally in her brother and he taught her and their sister Bangla and English, something they were both keenly interested in. At a young age, Rokeya was married off to the widower and magistrate Shakawat Hossain. Thankfully, her new husband was very supportive of his bride’s education and literary pursuits.
Throughout her literary career, she created an oeuvre of women-centric novels and short stories that portray their infinite capacity. The most famous and widely appreciated of these are Sultana’s Dream and Padmarag.
In addition to the literary field, Rokeya also made direct, material contributions to the causes of women’s liberation and education through the establishment of the Sakhawat Memorial Girls School. Formed shortly after the death of her husband, Rokeya used the institution to try and prevail on Muslim families to let their girls be schooled. She went from door to door proselytising the significance of female education for Muslims. This is especially noteworthy because many Muslim families at the time, owing to the misconceptions regarding the rules of behaviour for Muslim girls, saw female education as something ignominious. It was a difficult start – her first class had only five pupils.
Rokeya also conducted slum literary programmes in Kolkata, teaching women living in these low-income areas how to read and write. She also spread information on proper hygiene and child-rearing. Later on, she founded Anjuman-e-Khatwateen-e-Islam, an organisation which worked solely for women's education and empowerment. Till her last breath, Rokeya made sure that whenever there was an issue barring women’s rights, she was there to lend a helping hand.
However, while these facts of her life are known to many, we should ask - do we actually respect Rokeya’s struggle of reshaping a conservative society and the arduous work involved? How many modern readers have actually sat down to read her masterpieces?
Sadly, coming from someone who sat for excruciating board exams, reading Rokeya actually triggers sweat-stained flashbacks. Some of her writing was part of the syllabus, but instead of helping us to understand the thought process and ideology of this harbinger of South Asian feminism, my fellow examinees were forced to memorise each word, vivisecting them mercilessly. How we were taught these texts crushed our joy of reading. Once we managed to escape the burden of those exams, we were loath to pick Rokeya’s work back up again, afraid of the unpleasant memories.
But last month, when I read an article about how Penguin Classics is releasing new versions of Sultana’s Dream and Padmarag, which is also available as an audiobook, I was inspired to re-evaluate how I saw Rokeya.
A lot of people, mainly teens and tweens, phlegmatically nod to Rokeya being a feminist icon without really being able to gauge the scope and significance of her work. She captured her world in her books and, through them, left us fragments of her being. While it is a shame that our creatively crippled education system has thwarted our appreciation for this mighty woman, it is all the more shameful on our part that we have also failed to give Rokeya the consideration she deserves.
And so, on her birthday this year, I will be buying a copy of the new edition of Sultana’s Dream so that I can give the legacy of Rokeya the proper appreciation.
This article is a preview of literature coverage at Stripe, bdnews24.com’s page for exciting, in-depth analysis of society and culture from a youth perspective. The page is set to launch soon.